Broadly speaking, the way in which terrorists have been depicted in the US has some interesting, contrasting themes. White native-born (male) individuals who commit acts of politically-motivated lethal violence are generally depicted as marginalized sociopathic psychos rather than as individuals acting out of sincere ideological belief (I say “sincere” because homicidal individuals often attach themselves or attribute their actions to political causes without fully subscribing to the ideological precepts underpinning them). This lumps this type of terrorist in with genuinely insane psychopaths and allows the state to address their acts as criminal offenses rather than as political crimes.
For example, the Unabomber, Oklahoma City bombers and Atlanta Olympics bomber all acted out of sincere ideological conviction (Unabomber Ted Kaczynski published a 35,000 word manifesto of his beliefs). Yet, they were treated by the justice system less like al-Qaeda style fighters and more like the criminally deranged Tucson shooter who wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford and killed six others.
In the 1960s and 1970s groups like the Black Panthers, Symbionese Liberation Army and Weathermen were treated as guerrilla groups, which by definition recognizes that their challenges to authority are based on contrary political ideologies. These groups marshaled their opposition to the White Anglo Saxon Protestant Capitalist (WASP/C) status quo along racial and class lines. The used an unconventional war of position to convey their counter-hegemonic resistance to things as given. Because of this, the state saw them as an existential threat that challenged the socio-economic, cultural and political parameters of US society. They were treated accordingly, which in some cases slipped into extra-judicial punishment.
The predominant US born white male terrorist profile is that of a loner or small cell member whose ideological foundation is at the core of the WASP/C value system. The WASP/C terrorist believes in individual choice and natural rights in a free market unencumbered by tyranny. He may believe in God, a preferred religion and/or racial hierarchy. He despises the central (federal) government, foreign agencies and often times large corporations.
In effect, his armed critique of the system comes from deep within rather than from without.Â He sees the usurpation of traditional values and hierarchies as evidence of terminal moral decline, and he feels compelled to stand against it. He is a modern Minuteman.
This is why the WASP/C terrorist is treated like a psychopath rather than as a guerrilla or unconventional fighter. His values are too â€œclose to the boneâ€ of the US belief system to be treated first as an ideological critique rather than as deranged. Â Instead, the WASP/C terrorist is profiled as having severe unresolved personal issues, to include sublimated or repressed sexual urges that are eventually expressed through anti-social violence. However he is portrayed, his political motivations are downplayed in favor of flawed personal psychological traits.
In recent times the terrorist challenge in the US has been seen by the state as coming from foreign-based Muslims and their domestic supporters. These have been treated much in the way the guerrilla groups of the 1960s and 1970s were. They are depicted as having an ideology that is anathema to the American way of life. They are held to hate US values and its freedoms. The fight against them is framed in existential and civilizational terms. Focus on the criminality of their acts is shared by focus on the ideological reasons for them. They are considered to be ideological enemies as much if not more than as criminals.
The two-track meta-narrative on terrorists allows the US to reaffirm its core beliefs without subjecting them to re-examination. It reinforces the dominant ideology by differentiating between criminal and political violence along lines that do not challenge core WASP/C values and beliefs, which are now shared by non-WASPs and WASPs alike (popularized in the â€œanyone can make it hereâ€ credo epitomized by the Obama presidency).
Although it is easy to see why the US would adopt this meta-narrative on terrorism, it is unfortunate. It creates two standards of justice, one political and one criminal, with which to treat terrorists. This is inimical to the equal justice underpinnings of liberal democracies and paves the way for the creation of parallel judicial systems such as that seen in the Guantanamo Bay military tribunals.
It would seem preferable to treat all terrorism as criminal offenses. The issue is not whether the perpetrators are foreign or domestic. The type and location of the crime is what matters, and issues of nationality or domicile are at most the justification for extradition requests.Â Political or psychological reasons can be offered as an explanation for why terrorist acts were committed, but they cannot be used for the purposes of meting our different standards of justice. That has the benefit of reassuring friend and foe alike that the focus will be on the crime, not the cause.
That, in of itself, can be a significant deterrent to those who would otherwise pursue terrorism as a form of political expression.
Postscript: It will be interesting to see which narrative emerges with regard to the Chechnyan brothers involved in the Boston bombings. Home grown, self-radicalized small cell jihadis, part of an international al-Qaeda plot, or siblings with some creepy inter-personal dynamics? The rightwing US media already see the Muslim -bashing angle as the preferred interpretation, but the official government response (so far) is to not be as quick to attribute ideological rather than criminal intent to their actions.